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A giant computerized floating trashcan near campus is saving the ocean

A giant computerized floating trashcan near campus is saving the ocean

In recent months we’ve seen California’s weather go topsy-turvy, with new dystopian-sounding concepts like ‘bomb cyclones,’ ‘atmospheric rivers,’ and snow days in NorCal becoming more common. While startling, the extreme changes in weather serve as a call to action for humans to recognize that something in our world has shifted and that we can no longer take for granted that nature will stay within the boundaries of what is expected of it. Climate change has long ceased to be a discussion of if and when, and is instead now- and how we can do our part to not just stop but to reverse it. 

New technologies to solve climate change problems have begun to emerge, such as The Ocean Cleanup’s “Trash Interceptors,” which aim to fight climate change at the source, by preventing new trash from entering the ocean. The Interceptors are placed in bodies of water that lead to the ocean, like rivers and creeks, and utilize computer-operated technology to block and collect trash that would otherwise be going out to sea. The Ocean Cleanup is also producing systems that clean up existing plastic debris in our oceans, which have formed enormous trash islands like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Dutch non-profit’s ultimate goal is to remove “90% of floating ocean plastic by 2040.”

This project couldn’t come soon enough, because, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, by 2050, it is estimated that “there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish (by weight)” if action isn’t taken on all levels to clean up our mess. The organization partnered with Los Angeles County to face these issues head-on with the implementation of the 007 Trash Interceptor to Ballona Creek in Marina Del Rey.

The Ballona Trash Interceptor

The Ballona Trash Interceptor

   The 007 Interceptor, currently wedged in the mouth of Ballona Creek resembles a floating docking station, attached to mechanical barriers known as “booms.” The device is essentially a platform with a net and conveyor belt system that intercepts garbage from floating out into the ocean. 

Nets are connected to the booms, which function as mechanical arms, and utilize the Interceptor’s computer systems to locate hotspots of trash and adjust speed and direction to capture debris within its wingspan. The collected garbage is then sorted and transported to the shore for recycling.

The solar-powered unit was installed just off the coast of the Marina and put into service in October of 2022. This is the 7th Interceptor in operation globally and is currently the only one in North America. The Trash Cleanup donated this unit to L.A. County for a 2-year pilot program to see how effective the device could be in an urban environment. 

The Ballona Creek was strategically chosen as a boundary because debris from areas like Santa Monica, Culver City, West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills are all collected in the creek’s watershed and released into the Santa Monica Bay. Since the Santa Monica Bay is connected to the Pacific Ocean, blocking the garbage there prevents it from drifting out to sea and becoming part of Trash Island.

Trash Island

Trash Island- TJ Watson via Youtube

Trash Island, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, may sound like a mythical location from legends and fables, but unfortunately, it’s a very real and depressing place. The patch is the largest of five in the world, located in the North Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. Over the years, trash from multiple channels has accumulated and metastasized to around double the size of Texas and contains an estimated astronomical 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. 

The Ocean Cleanup’s Interceptor technology aims to address part of that problem by reducing plastic waste in rivers and streams, which significantly contributes to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s estimated that 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic annually enter the ocean through rivers. The group hypothesized that to “effectively clean up the oceans, we need to both clean up the plastic already in the ocean and intercept plastic on its way through rivers.” By catching plastic waste before it enters the ocean, the organization hopes to reduce the amount of plastic in the sea and prevent further damage to marine ecosystems. 

The Storms- A Blessing Or A Curse?

Within its first six months of operation, the 007 Interceptor faced a barrage of atmospheric rivers during this year’s uncharacteristically wet rainy season. The unexpected rainfall has proven to be a mixed blessing for the program. 

One of the biggest criticisms initially about installing the Interceptor into Ballona Creek was that there wouldn’t be enough rainfall to significantly affect how much trash is collected. That’s because the trash that the device prevents from floating out into the ocean is trash that’s floated in through storm drains, sewers, and other waterways before eventually flowing into the sea. Without rain to drive the trash into those pathways, the device would not be able to collect the amount of garbage for which they’d been projecting. 

In this case, the unusual levels of rainfall were a huge boost for the program. In a typical year, the Interceptor was projected to “collect about 30 tons” of potential pollutants, but by April, they’d collected up to 67 tonnes in half the time.

Trash barriers on the Interceptor

However, the storms and flooding did take a toll on the operation. In January, one of the Interceptor’s nets, or ‘trash booms,’ was damaged due to stress from the downpour and existing installation flaws. According to a representative from the LA Department of Public Works, Kerjon Lee, the damaged system was quickly replaced, and “both booms have been in place and operating perfectly since then.” 

There was a second incident during the flooding in March, when a separate trash collection net that had existed for the prior decade, the Lincoln boom, broke. That mechanism was designed to break open and release trash if there was too much water pressure. It has a history of being problematic but in March  “it actually broke in other areas and isn’t repairable.” The Lincoln boom might be out of commission, but fortunately, “the material that it was holding was actually picked up by the Interceptor, so we’ve had the largest or one of the largest collections as a result of that track net breaking.” The breakage of the older system ended up being a blessing in disguise and is a further testament to the effectiveness of the project.

‘Trash Travels’

    So far, the technology has successfully prevented trash from entering the bay, but that’s really only half the battle. Kerjon Lee said that “the project itself has done a really, really great job of collecting trash,” but emphasized that both the problem and the solution must go further if we really want to clean our oceans. 

Advertising for LA County’s “Trash Travels” campaign

The Interceptor may be blocking trash from entering the bay, but as far as he’s concerned, “the real problem and one that we’re trying to tackle through multiple different solutions is, is litter and illegal dumping.” 
The litter he’s referring to is not exclusive to what’s discarded at the beach, it’s trash from anywhere.

The county’s campaign uses the slogan ‘trash travels’ to emphasize personal responsibility for the trash in our oceans. The Ocean Cleanup created an interactive map to illustrate the fate of any plastic you abandon on the ground over the span of 20 years. It details the path that trash would take before eventually being swept up into the current of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, turning it into another resident of Trash Island.

The Problem

To get a different perspective on the project, I spoke to a Del Rey local named Joycelyn, who often gathers trash on the beach near the site of the Interceptor. I asked her what she thought about the Interceptor, and she wasn’t all that impressed, “I feel like this is the start.”

To her, the Interceptor’s innovative technology doesn’t address the real reason our beaches are dirty. The beach is “dirty because we don’t want to clean up after ourselves. And even if we see a little piece of trash just sitting there… we don’t want to pick it up,” she said.

Most of the time, people don’t set out to litter – they’re just not paying attention or are unconcerned about the consequences of their actions. Perhaps a napkin will blow away, and they won’t feel like chasing after it. Or they’ll throw something in the trash, and it lands next to the can.

See Also

Trash washed up beside Ballona Creek beyond range of the Interceptor

Laziness aside, the problem seems to be more so cultural. “I feel like it’s always ‘it’s not my problem’… it’s the attitude,” she said. People often feel that they aren’t responsible for picking up trash that wasn’t theirs to begin with, and think it’s somebody else’s problem, but that’s not entirely true. The trash itself might not belong to you, but the environment does, and the environment’s health is everyone’s responsibility. 

“If you don’t have the attitude of, like, this is my environment also, even though I might not have put that there, then we’re all failing to do our part,” she said.

She said the beach especially belongs to all of us. “We all come to the beach. We all leave trash eventually. There’s things that we can do just, like, cautiously as people and to clean up the ocean.”

Joycelyn also added that she thought having recycling bins on the beach would be another way to help people be more responsible about their trash. In terms of changing the culture, unfortunately, it’s not that easy. 

“Sometimes when there’s so many different types of factors that come into play…you can’t always pinpoint the problem and say that’s the problem.” She said that “just picking it up” is the solution to the problem, and that “the solutions are what matter.”

Do Your Part!

When it comes to trash, it’s easy to say, ‘just pick it up,’ but it’s also that easy to do! It’s not hard to bend down and pick up a piece of trash. When you’ve got arthritis in both knees and no future left to care about, that’s when it could be somebody else’s problem, but right now, we’re fighting for a future actually worth caring about.

Prevention starts with deciding to properly dispose of everything we use, from wrappers to plastic bottles. In LA County, we’re quite fortunate to have this new equipment to shield our oceans, but we still need to protect the sea ourselves by being mindful of where we leave our trash. As Kerjon Lee pointed out, the Interceptor is “literally the last line of defense,” which effectively makes us the first line. 

If we want to make The Ocean Cleanup’s goal of having 90% of the ocean free of floating plastics by 2040 a reality, then we need to make sure we’re contributing to the solution by picking up trash when we see it, instead of furthering the problem by being careless. Our actions matter, ‘trash travels’, and if a sea otter chokes on your empty discarded vape, it’s your damn fault. 

Pick up your trash. Happy Earth Month.

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